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Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz

Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz

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by Frank J. Barrett

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What Duke Ellington and Miles Davis teach us about leadership

How do you cope when faced with complexity and constant change at work? Here’s what the world’s best leaders and teams do: they improvise. They invent novel responses and take calculated risks without a scripted plan or a safety net that guarantees specific outcomes. They


What Duke Ellington and Miles Davis teach us about leadership

How do you cope when faced with complexity and constant change at work? Here’s what the world’s best leaders and teams do: they improvise. They invent novel responses and take calculated risks without a scripted plan or a safety net that guarantees specific outcomes. They negotiate with each other as they proceed, and they don’t dwell on mistakes or stifle each other’s ideas. In short, they say “yes to the mess” that is today’s hurried, harried, yet enormously innovative and fertile world of work.

This is exactly what great jazz musicians do. In this revelatory book, accomplished jazz pianist and management scholar Frank Barrett shows how this improvisational “jazz mind-set” and the skills that go along with it are essential for effective leadership today. With fascinating stories of the insights and innovations of jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, as well as probing accounts of the wisdom gleaned from his own experience as a jazz musician, Barrett introduces a new model for leading and collaborating in organizations.

He describes how, like skilled jazz players, leaders need to master the art of unlearning, perform and experiment simultaneously, and take turns soloing and supporting each other. And with examples that range from manufacturing to the military to high-tech, he illustrates how organizations must take an inventive approach to crisis management, economic volatility, and all the rapidly evolving realities of our globally connected world.

Leaders today need to be expert improvisers. Yes to the Mess vividly shows how the principles of jazz thinking and jazz performance can help anyone who leads teams or works with them to develop these critical skills, wherever they sit in the organization.

Engaging and insightful, Yes to the Mess is a seminar on collaboration and complexity, against the soulful backdrop of jazz.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In his new book Yes To The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, Frank J. Barrett makes an engaging and convincing case that the leadership style that it takes to make great jazz can also make business more innovative and successful… if you are a jazz fan, you'll really enjoy getting an insider's view of how the music you love is created.” — USA Today

“This is a fascinating read.” — Smooth Jazz News

“The book is breezy and fun, and offers vivid real-life stories from Barrett’s musical career and observations about some jazz greats, all juxtaposed with anecdotes from the business world.” — Forbes

“Jazz has always been a good metaphor for the art of leadership. In Yes to the Mess, Frank Barrett knocks it out of the park.” — LeadershipNow

“Jazz has always been an art form that blends structure with learning as you go. So it is no wonder that Yes to the Mess has a playful tone— dare I say there’s a ton of fun in this business book? If you are problem solving for your organization or team and have an imaginative personality, you’ll feel like a cool cat from reading this book.” — Small Business Trends (smallbiztrends.com)

“a short but powerful book about how to be more focused at work, how to understand chaos as opportunity, and how to be better prepared to approach it.” — 800 CEO READ

ADVANCE PRAISE for Yes to the Mess:

Karl E. Weick, Rensis Likert Distinguished University Professor, Ross School of Business; coauthor, Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity
“Frank Barrett’s remarkable fusion of jazz improvisation and organizational innovation promises to reshape how we think about creative work. Innovations are improvised into existence and here, for the first time, is a backstage look at how that happens.”

Ellis Marsalis Jr., Professor Emeritus and Jazz Studies program founder, University of New Orleans —
“Barrett’s insightful book shows how business can learn from the ‘risky business’ of jazz. Yes to the Mess is a great treatise on improvisation and on the courage to persist irrespective of a predictable outcome.”

Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School; author, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy
“Jazz provides an illuminating metaphor for managing in the knowledge era. Frank Barrett writes beautifully about leadership, learning, and innovation and pulls together great stories from a range of industry settings—from jazz performance to automotive manufacturing. Yes to the Mess is a great read, which I recommend enthusiastically."

Edgar H. Schein, Professor Emeritus, MIT Sloan School of Management —
Yes to the Mess provides a fascinating view into the world and mind-set of jazz musicians and will stimulate you to think differently about leadership and organization. Read this book.”

Douglas R. Conant, former President and CEO, Campbell Soup Company; coauthor, TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments
“This book describes a powerful and necessary paradigm shift to advance the craft of leadership in the twenty-first century. Barrett gives every aspiring leader a new model for proactively dealing with the chaos and disruption that has come to characterize the world of work in our time.”

Roger H. Brown, President, Berklee College of Music; cofounder, Bright Horizons —
“Finally! A book that applies the tools of an improvising jazz musician to great leadership. The modern world can no longer afford the orchestral model of management—lots of people playing the same part and a leader who stands apart from it all. The new world is premised on intense communication, lightning-speed decision making, risk taking, and a degree of perfected competence that allows spontaneous and brilliant composing—namely jazz. Yes to the Mess gets it right.”

Richard Boyatzis, Distinguished University Professor, Case Western Reserve University; coauthor, Primal Leadership and Resonant Leadership
“With the velvety tones of Wes Montgomery and the wail of Miles Davis, professional jazz musician and management scholar Frank Barrett plays a set to enchant us. Pour a glass of wine, sit back, and listen to this engaging story of how to help teams and organizations innovate instead of replicate.”

Ken Peplowski, award-winning jazz clarinetist and saxophonist —
“I’ve known Frank Barrett for over thirty years, and we’ve often discussed the strange confluence of learned experience and pure intuition that exists in jazz improvisation. Frank gives us an insight into that world and how its lessons can be applied to almost any walk of life—truly fascinating!”

Product Details

Harvard Business Review Press
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Barnes & Noble
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354 KB

Meet the Author

Frank J. Barrett is Professor of Management and Global Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He holds a PhD in Organizational Behavior from Case Western Reserve University and is an accomplished jazz musician. In addition to leading his own trios and quartets, Barrett has traveled extensively with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. His research interests and expertise include organizational change, social constructionism, organizational innovation, improvisation, and appreciative inquiry.

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Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
CraigWeber More than 1 year ago
I love reading a book that rewards my investment -- in time and money -- with gem after gem after gem of insight. Yes To The Mess is one of those books.  It's well written and it's substantial. I'm not a musician but I still found the book to be extremely easy to read and understand, and I found myself marking line after line. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great book to help develop strategies for innovation in change within you and your organization.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago